Rum­bles in the jun­gle

One visit to Peru sim­ply is not enough, de­cides Lucinda Bar­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

F you want a more in­trepid hol­i­day than your usual re­sort fare, then Peru has it all. But when try­ing to de­cide how to tackle an en­tire coun­try in less than a fort­night, the op­tions can seem rather daunt­ing. In the end we choose to go with Inkaterra, a small chain of eco-ho­tels, for the ease of be­ing met at ev­ery air­port and the com­fort of stay­ing in three lux­ury bou­tique ho­tels.

What’s more, if you are at all con­cerned about the en­vi­ron­ment, rest as­sured: Inkaterra’s mis­sion is to con­serve Peru’s nat­u­ral and cul­tural her­itage and it is fully car­bon-neu­tral, so you can ig­nore any jeal­ous mut­ter­ings about the size of your car­bon foot­print.

First stop: the jun­gle. On ar­rival, we are briefed by the man­ager, Ale­jan­dro, about where ev­ery­thing is, what to do in case of a fire and what to do if you find a nasty spi­der cling­ing to your mos­quito net (blow the whis­tle hang­ing in your room, ap­par­ently).

I as­sume this is just a friendly wel­come to the Ama­zon’’ wind-up but am quickly put in my place. What did you ex­pect? This is the jun­gle!’’ Oh, good. To prove his point, Ale­jan­dro marches me straight off in search of the near­est taran­tula, which turns out to be a pink-footed one. Do not be fooled: there is noth­ing fem­i­nine or bal­let-shoed about it. It is a black, hairy, fe­ro­cious-looking mon­ster the size of my hand, the un­der­side of whose pink foot I am in­vited to touch. For­get it: Ale­jan­dro has al­ready shown me where its poi­sonous red fangs are and they are too close.

Spi­ders aside, Reserva Ama­zon­ica is spec­tac­u­lar. It’s set in 200ha of pri­vate land and we see enough wildlife in the first hour to make the op­pres­sive 36C heat worth putting up with. Dur­ing lunch we spot a scar­let ma­caw, so brightly coloured it seems car­toon-like, and a group of sad­dle­back tamarins fool­ing around in the trees.

The short path back to our in­di­vid­ual ca­banas — rus­tic chic with white linen, tiled bath­rooms, ham­mocks for read­ing and lit only by kerosene lamps — pro­vides us with glimpses of a pygmy mar­moset (the small­est mon­key in the world), an aguti (a gi­ant rat the size of a cat) and a red Ama­zon squir­rel with a big bushy tail.

Af­ter lunch we go trekking off into the rain­for­est with our ma­chete-wield­ing guide, os­ten­si­bly to see more wildlife but in re­al­ity to learn a lot about trees: self­peel­ing ones that shed their bark to avoid be­ing stran­gled by vines; mon­key lad­ders that you can boil to cure tu­ber­cu­lo­sis; trees with roots up to 4m wide and oth­ers with roots like stilts on which they phys­i­cally move to find more light.

Other ex­cur­sions in­clude the river at twi­light, where fire­flies ap­pear and dis­ap­pear like flick­er­ing can­dles and fish­ing bats swoop down looking for sup­per. Float­ing down the Ama­zon at night, the only things we see are the lights of the min­ers sift­ing through the river­bank in search of gold, and the red eyes of the caimans.

At dawn we pad­dle in a ca­noe around Lake San­doval, a wildlife haven where we see cor­morants, snake­birds, king­fish­ers and hoatzins (surely the ugli­est bird in Peru, with claws on its wings to help it climb out of the wa­ter into the trees), huge but­ter­flies with elec­tric-blue wings and a howler mon­key asleep in a tree.

As if that isn’t enough, our last morn­ing takes us over seven swing­ing bridges 31m above the rain­for­est on the canopy walk. As the thun­der rolls in, the tou­cans start call­ing, ap­par­ently be­cause they want the rain to come and quench their thirst.

From the dense rain­for­est to the arid high­lands of the Andes. The colder tem­per­a­tures of the Sa­cred Val­ley are a wel­come re­lief from the hu­mid­ity and I revel in the cosi­ness of Urubamba Vil­las.

Af­ter a few sweaty and sleep­less nights in the jun­gle, the high beds with big white du­vets and hot-wa­ter bot­tles prove, un­sur­pris­ingly, con­ducive to sleep. Each villa is named af­ter its maid (So­nia in our case), who pro­vides sim­ple but hearty An­dean meals, the high­light of which is a break­fast of quinoa pan­cakes served in the gar­den sur­rounded by hum­ming­birds.

Equipped with car and driver, we visit the An­dean vil­lage of Pisac, where the main at­trac­tion is the vi­brant mar­ket on Thurs­days and Sun­days. Al­though it’s now sadly awash with tourists, the char­ac­ter and colour of the mar­ket re­mains undi­min­ished and I come away with eight pairs of socks made from the soft­est al­paca wool.

Then a quick visit to Chinchero, a weav­ing com­mu­nity funded by a non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion, and lo­cated 3750m above sea level, and Ol­lan­tay­tambo, a vil­lage with an Inca ruin and a sta­tion, from which you can get a train to the daddy of all Inca ru­ins.

Machu Pic­chu, de­spite its sta­tus as one of the new Seven Won­ders of the World, is ac­ces­si­ble only by train or on foot. The well-trod­den Inca Trail can be com­pleted in four days, two or even just one. But if you are too old for trekking or des­per­ately pressed for time, you can catch the train straight to Aguas Calientes and then it’s a 25-minute bus jour­ney to the top.

There is some­thing shame­ful about be­ing the only tourist un­der 80 not to have phys­i­cally earned the right to see the ru­ins, but one dis­tinct ad­van­tage is that you can ar­rive well be­fore the hordes from the trail.

We catch the first bus at 5am, giv­ing us Machu Pic­chu

Peep show: Bright-eyed youngsters beam a warm wel­come; Peru­vians are among the world’s most hos­pitable peo­ple

Sa­cred space: Cosy Urubamba Vil­las prac­ti­cally to our­selves. There is some de­bate as to whether Machu Pic­chu has been so over-pho­tographed that when you see it with your own eyes it is a slight an­ti­cli­max. Not this time (my sec­ond). The sheer size of the place, hid­den high up be­tween the moun­tains and built 6000 years ago, is quite the most in­cred­i­ble feat of construction.

We take a guide who spends three hours ex­plain­ing not only how the city was built (by us­ing the nat­u­ral ero­sion of the rocks and chip­ping away at the cracks be­fore in­sert­ing metal poles for lever­age) but why it was de­serted.

There is some­thing a bit sad about walk­ing around a lost city, see­ing the metic­u­lous de­tail with which it was built and know­ing it was never lived in for fear of an at­tack by Spa­niards who never ar­rived.

Our ho­tel, Inkaterra Machu Pic­chu Pue­blo, is my favourite of the three Inkaterra prop­er­ties we visit. Set deep in the val­ley, with the Urubam­aba River flow­ing along one side, the place is a haven of na­ture and re­lax­ation, sur­rounded by lush green­ery and the sound of trick­ling wa­ter.

The at­mos­phere is dusky and can­dlelit, with bowls of eu­ca­lyp­tus around ev­ery cor­ner and open fires in ev­ery bed­room, which you light your­self with the aid of a kind of gun­pow­der.

If you are a real re­lax­ation junkie, take a pri­vate yoga class in the stu­dio over­look­ing the river, fol­lowed by a mas­sage in the spa, and fin­ish with a ses­sion in the Aztec sauna, a lit­tle eu­ca­lyp­tus-lined igloo heated by rocks from the moun­tain.

Here the eco-projects in­clude an or­chid cul­ti­va­tion pro­gram in two pri­vate gar­dens, a visit to which teaches me about the tiny mos­quito or­chid, just 1cm wide, the um­brella or­chid, which is pro­tected by a green leaf over­head, and the lit­tle spi­der or­chid, pale green and about half the size of a petit pois.

In the 12 days I spend in Peru I learn more about An­dean cul­tures and tra­di­tions than I could have from any book or lec­ture. I learn that An­deans are su­per­sti­tious peo­ple who wor­ship the sun and the moun­tains and make of­fer­ings to Mother Earth to pre­vent her from eat­ing them. I learn that they eat guinea pig (re­volt­ingly dark and veiny) and drink chicha, a beer made from corn that tastes like cider.

I learn that once upon a time they stole bones from grave­yards to use to cut the fat out of peo­ple’s bot­toms, in or­der that they might be­come thin­ner. I learn that no mat­ter how poor they might be, Peru­vians are some of the most hos­pitable peo­ple on earth.

In 12 days we have crammed in a trip to the jun­gle, the Sa­cred Val­ley and Machu Pic­chu, but in ev­ery place we were left want­ing more. And that’s without spending any proper time in Lima and Cusco or vis­it­ing Lake Tit­i­caca.

And that is what makes Peru so in­ter­est­ing: its di­ver­sity. You just have to keep go­ing back, which is ex­actly what I in­tend to do. The Spec­ta­tor

Check­list

Peru and the Ama­zon fea­ture on new South Amer­i­can guided itin­er­ar­ies with Tauck Cul­tu­ri­ous. The 12-day Peru and Ama­zon ex­cur­sion goes from Lima to Cuzco and starts at $US5490 ($6640) a per­son twin share, in­clud­ing two in­ter­nal flights, ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals, es­corted tour­ing and gratuities. De­par­tures to Oc­to­ber. More: 1300 766 566; www.trav­elthe­world.com.au.

www.inkaterra.com

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